The Importance of Smart Housing Policy and Planning

4.20.11 | Two recent reports on housing shed light on how important smart housing planning is for healthy metros.

The first, Housing an Aging Population: Are We Prepared? by the Center for Housing Policy considers the ramifications of an aging society. The second, Public Housing Transformation and Crime, by the Urban Institute, looks at the effects on crime of relocating residents from a failed housing experiment: public high-rise housing.

By 2030, the number of elderly is expected to double, according to government predictions. Some scholars think those numbers are too low. Either way, the nation will experience a shift in its housing needs, ranging from a need for more accessible housing to more affordable housing.  As the report notes:

Older adults are more likely than younger adults to spend more than half their income on housing. Cost burdens also increase with age. One in four households 85+ pay at least half their income for housing, …The incomes of older adults tend to decline with age … But property taxes, maintenance, and utility costs all tend to rise over time for both older homeowners and renters (as reflected in higher rents). Accumulated savings and home equity can help, but levels of net worth vary dramatically among older adults, and are particularly low among racial and ethnic minorities.

The report offers several policy suggestions for meeting this shifting demand, including assistance with home modification using a range of funding sources; connecting residents to social services through expansion of the Home and Community-Based Services Medicaid waiver program, PACE, and volunteer efforts, and expanding housing vouchers and property tax abatement programs to ease costs. Perhaps one of the most important to keep elderly connected and active is to expand public transit and create volunteer driver programs to help residents get around without driving.

Metro policies also come into play. As the report notes, by adopting more flexible zoning policies, communities can help foster a diverse range of housing types including accessory dwelling units (i.e., granny flats), high-density rental developments, assisted living residences, continuing care retirement communities, and congregate housing.

The report also recommends experimenting with more communal housing that promote “active neighboring” and/or allow professional caregivers to live among residents. (Policymakers would do well to work closely with demographers and public health officials, many of whom are projecting less disability among the elderly and longer, healthier lives.)

Although not in the report, an article several months ago offered a possible model for cohousing: micro-lofts. Such lofts are about 150 square feet with 14-foot ceilings and a mini-kitchen. They’re clustered around larger communal space with a garden or a big living room. (Think dorms for adults–or more glamorously, hotel living).

I can imagine this kind of communal living for Boomers who want to remain in cities, stay connected to friends, and avoid becoming isolated in later years. Micro-lofts also seem particularly good fit for the rising number of singles today. Women are particularly likely to be living alone in their older years.

The second report reminds us just how importance it is to plan smartly. As the failed urban planning experiment of high-rise public housing comes to end in major cities, a new report, Public Housing Transformation and Crime, looks at the impact on crime rates of relocating former high-rise residents to new neighborhoods in two cities, Chicago and Atlanta. The goal of tearing down high-rise public housing and relocating residents is to de-concentrate poverty and allow families to rebuild more positive social networks and ties. However, many neighborhoods–often already vulnerable– worried that crime would spike as these families moved in.

The Urban Institute report finds some support for this, although not as dramatic as many claimed:

Many neighborhoods to which public housing families relocated experienced no adverse effect on neighborhood crime, …. But in neighborhoods where relocated households were more concentrated, …crime did not fall at the expected rate.

Researchers estimated that tearing down Chicago’s public housing and relocating residents with vouchers was associated with a 1 percent decrease in violent crimes citywide between 2000 and 2008 (and a 4.4 percent drop in gun crimes). Declines were similar in Atlanta.

Crimes in the neighborhoods where residents tended to relocate were 2-5% higher than estimates would predict, however.  Although, as the study notes, this is not the huge spike that many expected. The researchers estimated crime rates in neighborhoods based on larger trends in the metro area.

Again underscoring the fact concentrating poverty is never a good idea, those neighborhoods with a higher density (per 1,000 people) of former public housing residents had higher crime rates than lower-density neighborhoods.  A higher-density neighborhood with 6 to 14 relocated households per 1,000 households, on average, had a violent crime rate 11 percent higher in Atlanta and 13 percent higher in Chicago than it would have had with no relocated households.

The report underscores the importance of providing support to families relocating. The large-scale Moving to Opportunity experiment came to similar conclusions. MTO gave public housing residents vouchers to move to new neighborhoods as well, and counseling and supports were critical to their success. As the Urban Institute report concludes

A crucial policy implication from this research is the need for responsible relocation strategies—like those now employed in both Chicago and Atlanta—that offer former residents a real choice of housing and neighborhoods, and provide long-term support to them once they leave public housing. Other housing authorities planning large-scale redevelopment should learn from the experiences of these two cities about how to support former residents in moving to a wider range of communities and not creating new concentrations of poverty in other vulnerable communities.

photo credit: Rodrigo Peredo for the New York Times

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